While talking to Thinkbusiness.ie, Head of Food & Drink Sector for Bank of Ireland Roisin O’Shea has put together a checklist of best practice for food and foodservice businesses amidst the current pandemic.

Whilst Ireland is one of the ‘most food-secure’ countries in the world, according to a recent survey of 133 countries, and while the whole sector has not been as severely impacted such as hospitality and tourism, food companies ranging from grocery stores to suppliers, still need to adapt to ensure their survival.  In fact, these services are essential to the public as demonstrated by the priority given to food workers and grocery retail in Ireland at the moment.

Ms O’Shea broke some considerations for employers down into a number of headlines, each highlighting key areas to effectively maintain and manage businesses.

Staff safety and morale
Despite the fact that excellent food standards are synonymous with the Irish food industry, meaning that hygiene, such as handwashing, is very high, additional measures should be put in place to facilitate social distancing guidelines. 

Adapting current protocols and physical modifications of premises including the provision of perspex screens and the graduation of production through completing one section of assembly on a line at a time or running extended shifts. The FSAI (Food Safety Authority of Ireland) has updated guidelines around food preparation with regards to COVID 19.  Breaks should also be staggered to ensure distance is maintained.

Compliance with tracing can be attained through rechecking all staff details to enable the smooth running of procedures should a case occur, especially if out of hours.

Regular and clear communication is also very important whilst factoring in the fact that staff may not have English as a first language or may be working remotely.

Staff should also be reallocated from non-essential areas to cover additional demand, such as salesforce covering foodservice channels being moved to retail.

Supply chain
It is prudent for companies to increase their current stocks to cope with any possible issues, as despite the priority that has been given food across Europe, there will be a slowdown in the supply chain.  Businesses need to review and understand all elements of their supply chain and the actual country of origin – not just intermediary suppliers. Alternative suppliers should also be put in place now to avoid timing issues.

Stock management
Companies dealing with the grocery market should have daily stock meetings to ensure the best allocation of stock, along with a manual review of larger orders before they go through to dispatch.

Foodservice-oriented companies
Foodservice business has been drastically reduced and will require different approaches, each unique to each operation.  Some businesses have started to develop a direct to consumer channel and their success is dependent on their user interface, marketing and variety of offerings.  It may be helpful to pool resources with complementary companies on a regional basis which is something that the Tipperary food producers’ group is trialling at present.

Other companies are assessing whether their products can be repurposed for retail.  This can involve repackaging, which can mean speaking with some specialist food repackaging companies that you can outsource work to.  Also, businesses should consider approaching a retail distributor to create relationships with retailers.

Some of the UK grocers are currently trialling catering size packs. The British Frozen Foods Federation has links on their site to foodservice suppliers (including those in Ireland) with grocers looking for stock in the UK.  It may also be a good idea to look to the UK as a market, with home deliveries and meal preparation businesses reporting significant increases in sales.

Brand management
It is important that brands project the right tone and do the right thing during this crisis.  For example, the Shed Distillery provided alcohol for sanitiser – an excellent and legitimate case of corporate social responsibility.  Brands should consider whether they can genuinely contribute to helping their communities at this time.

Cash flow and cost management
A good cash flow is crucial to meet the increased needs of grocers. Working capital should be reviewed to ensure finances stay in a good place.  For those experiencing reduced demand, government supports are there to help retain employees. However, they should also consider the SBCI loan scheme which has now been extended if there are new business opportunities arising that need development finance.

The impact of COVID 19 is being felt across all business sectors. These impacts are leading to a number of financial needs for banking customers, including the provision of emergency working capital, prioritising loan decisions for impacted customers, payment flexibility on loan facilities, and the provision of trade finance and foreign currency products.

The Future
Ms O’Shea also advised businesses to plan for ‘what a post-COVID-19 world will look like’. She believes that technology will have a massive impact on the future of food delivery.  She also asked businesses to consider what channels will accelerate and what new customers will come of this. She also asked businesses to consider what consumers will feel when they emerge from the immediate crisis and will there be a nostalgia for older brands.

She urged businesses to consider the fact that other countries such as China may emerge from the crisis quicker than the west and therefore may be potentially an export market.

Finally, she said that other food companies would be in the same boat and that this would be an excellent time to reach out and make new connections.

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